By Mark Gutglueck
This month marks the ten-year anniversary of Dr. Raymond W. Wolfe’s accession to the position of executive director of San Bernardino County’s transportation agency.
The approach of that milestone in the past several months has occasioned some discussion with regard to the prospect of his remaining in that position beyond 2023, at which point the completion of the 10 Freeway toll lanes in San Bernardino County will be achieved. Among a significant cross section of knowledgeable people in the habit of observing governance in San Bernardino County are a good number who say the advent of road use charges will ultimately push Wolfe into a voluntary or forced departure.
All the same, there are others who insist that Wolfe’s management of a key element of local collective governmental authority and his mastery of planning, organizing, directing and controlling is the model of what a modern urban professional should offer to the political leadership he serves.
At issue is, essentially, Wolfe’s position and function as San Bernardino County’s transportation infrastructure czar.
For three generations at this point, the Inland Empire has been the repository of a huge percentage of the human talent that is employed in the industrial and commercial sectors of Los Angeles, one of the most dynamic economic centers on the planet. Like their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers and great grandmothers and great grandfathers before them, some half of a million commuters who live in San Bernardino County and Riverside County transit through San Bernardino County to their workplaces in Los Angeles County in most cases five days a week, spending not just minutes but hours, in many cases many hours, making that trip, much of that time at a standstill or near standstill on a freeway that resembles a parking lot rather than a thoroughfare.
For the past decade, the residents of San Bernardino County have paid Dr. Raymond Wolfe approaching $4.8 million to wrestle with the issues pertaining to maintaining and improving the region’s existing transportation system so that they need not squander one-tenth of their workday lives simply waiting for the traffic to clear out of the way in front of them so they can get where they are going. Measured in practical terms, Wolfe, like all of those who held like or related positions of authority over San Bernardino County’s and Southern California’s transportation systems before him, has failed, some say abjectly. The average commuter today spends more time going to and getting back from work than he or she did a decade ago, before Dr. Wolfe took on the executive director’s assignment overseeing San Bernardino County’s transportation agency.
To be fair, the question might best not be personalized to Dr. Wolfe, but rather posed as whether it is at all possible for anyone, including someone as skilled and experienced and as gifted as Dr. Wolfe, let alone someone who is not, to solve the transportation and locomotion issues of a region that serves as the home for a population that has outgrown by a factor of three-to-one or perhaps more the infrastructure necessary to accommodate it.
It is, perhaps, not a matter of Dr. Wolfe or anyone who might have otherwise served in his place not having the wherewithal to conceive of, design, finance and construct a transportation system capable of supporting the interaction, commerce, livelihoods and lives of eight million people traversing 180 miles of highway and some 55 miles of railway per day, but rather a question of whether anyone could have embodied the courage to tell multiple phases and cycles of Southern California politicians that they needed to resist the dynamic social and financial pressure to permit the region to grow to a population beyond the practical means of accommodating it without first augmenting what was already inadequate infrastructure with the streets, roads, boulevards, highways, freeways, railways and other means to serve it in the daily course of life.
That Dr. Wolfe was unable to save the politicians he serves at the pleasure of from their own selfish and worst inclinations is hardly surprising; nor will it be a shock if in the end he falls victim to the county’s politicians’ inclination for self-survival and is sacrificed in an either successful or vain effort that they remain in office.
Wolfe was brought in as the executive director of what was known then as SANBAG in the spring of 2012.
San Bernardino Associated Governments, known as SANBAG, was created in 1973 as San Bernardino County’s council of governments and its regional planning agency. It subsequently took on the role of the county’s transportation agency overseeing freeway construction projects, regional and local road improvements, train and bus transportation, railroad crossings, call boxes, ridesharing, congestion management efforts, freeway service patrols and emergency freeway service, and continued to serve as the county’s council of governments. When voters in 1989 passed Measure I, a half-cent sales tax override, the proceeds from which were intended to provide transportation improvements countywide, SANBAG was entrusted with the administration of that funding.
In the late 1980s, when the advocates of a tax to pay for transportation projects put together what became Measure I, counterarguments emerged. Those counterarguments were myriad. Among them was that the destruction of the region’s agricultural base, including vineyards, citrus groves, other means of fruit and vegetable cultivation and the dairy industry in favor of expansive residential subdivisions was irresponsible in that the proponents of such development were not providing infrastructure, including roads, highways, freeways and rail lines, capable of accommodating the growing population those subdivisions ultimately housed. Moreover, Measure I’s opponents maintained, a local transportation tax would absolve the state government from maintaining and expanding a freeway system commensurate with the region’s population growth.
Despite that opposition, the county’s voters embraced Measure I.
Rather than bank the money coming in through the half cent sales tax until enough money accrued to undertake transportation improvement projects, San Bernardino Associated Governments’ board, consisting of a representative of what were then the county’s 21 cities and single incorporated town plus the five members of the board of supervisors, elected to bond against the future revenue from Measure I and utilize the proceeds from those bond sales to initiate projects at once. This was done because many of those politicians who made up the SANBAG board had been Measure I advocates, and they wanted to be able to make a show of having achieved results with regard to transportation infrastructure improvements in their follow-on reelection efforts. While this doubtless generally redounded to those politicians’ own personal political benefit in helping them obtain reelection, it cut into the amount of actual money available for transportation improvement projects, as it initiated debt service requirements for the bonds that were issued. That indebtedness persists until the present, nearly 33 years after Measure I’s passage and 18 years after the 2004 passage of a Measure I taxing authority extension. Instead of Measure I revenue being devoted entirely to paying for transportation-related undertakings, a substantial portion of the tax revenue is perpetually dedicated to paying the interest on the bonds issued in advance of that money’s coming in.
Over the years, projects funded with Measure I money have included ones at various spots throughout far-flung San Bernardino County. Among them have been the I-15/I-215 Interchange; creating a high occupancy lane from Haven Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga to Ford Avenue in Redlands on the I-10 Freeway; improvements to the Cherry Avenue exits and onramps; the I-10/Live Oak Canyon Interchange; the I-10/Riverside Avenue Interchange; SR-60/Euclid Avenue ramp improvements; I-10/Cherry Avenue, I-10/Citrus Avenue, I-10/Tippecanoe Avenue, I-15/Duncan Canyon, I-15/La Mesa Road/Nisqualli Road and I-15/Ranchero Road interchange improvements; fixes to the I-10/Cedar Avenue onramps and offramps in Bloomington and the SR-210/Baseline Road entrances and exits in Highland; improvements to freeway and road articulation involving SR-60/Central Avenue in Chino, I-10/University Street in Redlands, I-215/University Parkway in the City of San Bernardino, I-10/Alabama Street in Redlands, I-15/Baseline Road in Rancho Cucamonga, SR-60/Archibald Avenue in Ontario, I-10/Monte Vista Avenue in Montclair and I-10/Pepper Avenue in Colton. SANBAG and SBCTA were involved, as well, with Metrolink service as part of the Downtown San Bernardino Passenger Rail Project; the sbX articulated bus project running from near the VA Hospital in Loma Linda to Cal State San Bernardino; renovations to the historic Santa Fe Depot Building in San Bernardino where the board for SANBAG and now SBCTA held and hold their meetings, the Redlands Passenger Rail Project to provide service between the San Bernardino Transit Center and the University of Redlands on the existing cargo rail line between the two cities; Omnitrans bus operations, the Mountain/Desert bus transit lines; rail line improvements generally; Victor Valley Transit Authority bus operations; Morongo Valley Transit bus operations; planning and engineering preparation for the extension of the Gold Line from Azusa to Montclair; grade separation/overpass or underpass projects at Palm Avenue in the City of San Bernardino and the County of San Bernardino, Laurel Avenue in Colton, Hunts Lane straddling the cities of San Bernardino and Colton, Milliken Avenue in Ontario, 9th Street in Colton, Monte Vista in Montclair, North Vineyard Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga and Glen Helen Parkway near Devore; the Lenwood Grade Separation near Barstow, including preliminary engineering; the Barstow First Avenue Bridge; the Yucca Loma Road Widening in Apple Valley; the Needles Connector Project; improvements to Yates Road, Baker Boulevard and Park Boulevard in the county’s unincorporated areas; signalization on Lear Avenue in Twentynine Palms; improvements at Green Tree Boulevard/I-215 in Victorville; the bi-county gap closure near the I-215 Barton Road Interchange; I-215 Corridor widening; State Route 210 construction; SR 210 lane addition widening; I-15 Express Lanes (South of SR-60 to SR-210); the I-10 Corridor Project; the I-10 truck climbing Lane; I-10 express lanes; Metro Link stations or parking lots in Rialto, Rancho Cucamonga, and Upland; the Control Point Lilac to Control Point Rancho Double Track from Rialto to San Bernardino; Sierra Avenue Metrolink grade crossing pedestrian improvements and Juniper Avenue Metrolink grade crossing pedestrian improvements in Fontana; the Zanja Bridge removal near the intersection of North Lincoln Street and Sylvan Boulevard in Redlands; and the West Valley Connector Project, a 33.5-mile-long bus rapid transit project with limited stops, running from Pomona to Montclair, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, and Fontana. SANBAG and SBCTA have also supported the Mountain Area Regional Transit Authority, also known as Mountain Transit, the bus and shuttle transit service operator in the San Bernardino Mountains area of the county.
Despite the surfeit of transportation projects that SANBAG/SBCTA has involved itself in, its actual charter could be summed up as a single mission: eradicating the legacy of Alfred P. Sloan.
Sloan, a vice president of General Motors from its founding in 1916 until 1923 and then the president, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of General Motors from 1923 until 1956, utilized a multitude of strategies to establish, maintain and increase General Motors’ sales and profitability, a primary one of which was to eliminate its major competition, those being the electric train lines that had come into existence in many major American metropolitan areas.
By 1910 the Pacific Electric Company had established 1,100 miles of track, which included the interurban Red Line along a network of tracks in Los Angeles and its environs that extended as far south as Newport Beach and included stops within view of the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach and Santa Monica and lines that extended to scores of communities in the greater Los Angeles area as far east as Redlands and Highland. Augmenting the Red Line was the Yellow Line, a network of streetcars throughout Los Angeles itself.
The San Bernardino Line, which ran from Santa Monica Boulevard via Beverly Hills, then to Pasadena, Temple City, Alhambra and through several eastern Los Angeles County cities to Pomona and thereafter eastward well into San Bernardino County to Highland, Redlands and the Arrowhead Hotel in San Bernardino, was yet operating in 1941 but was discontinued that year. Thereafter, there was still a line from LA’s Union Station interurban yard on the west side of the terminal that departed at 12:45 pm and which reached San Bernardino at 4:40 pm daily, taking nearly four hours for the trip. It did not operate on Sundays or holidays. That train offered a myriad of services, one of which was an on-train post office. The last railroad post office car was eliminated on May 6, 1950. By 1951, the Pacific Electric Red Car Line’s service to San Bernardino County was gone.
Sloan effectuated the destruction of interurban railroads not just in Los Angeles but throughout the United States in 45 other municipalities where light rail and streetcar systems existed. In conjunction with Standard Oil of California, otherwise known as Chevron Oil, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone, General Motors utilized a bus company consisting of two buses in Minneapolis owned by E. Roy Fitzgerald and his four brothers to begin a corporate expansion of what became known as National City Lines, which in 1936 began purchasing existing transit companies all over the country, including ones that involved light rail and street cars in Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama; Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida; Aurora, Elgin, Bloomington, Champaign, Danville, East St. Louis, Decatur, Galesburg, Joliet, Kewanee, LaSalle, Peoria, Qunicy and Rock Island, Illinois; South Bend and Terre Haute, Indiana; Burlington, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Ottumwa and Sioux City, Iowa; Baltimore, Maryland; Jackson, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Saginaw and Pontiac, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; St. Louis, Missouri; Butte and Great Falls, Montana; Lincoln, Nebraska; Canton and Portsmouth, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Beaumont, El Paso, Houston, Port Arthur and Wichita Falls, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Bellingham, Everett and Spokane, Washington; and Oshkosh, Wisconsin; as well as in Burbank, Eureka, Fresno, Glendale, Oakland, Sacramento, Inglewood, Long Beach, San Jose, Pasadena, Stockton and Los Angeles in California. The goal of investing in National City Lines was to have that company purchase the rail and streetcar tracks in those cities and substitute buses as the form of public transportation used in those locations. Once that goal was accomplished, the rail and streetcar tracks were torn up and the rail cars destroyed.
In 1947, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles took up the matter of what was occurring to the Red Line and succeeded in having a grand jury indict nine corporations and seven individuals, including General Motors and Sloan, on multiple counts of “conspiring to acquire control of a number of transit companies, forming a transportation monopoly” and “conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines.”
The matter went to trial and the companies and corporate officers in 1949 were convicted of antitrust violations. The court assessed a penalty of $5,000 against the corporations involved and $1 against each of their executives. No order to restore the rail lines and transportation system, which in today’s economic terms would equate to a value of more than $60 billion, was entered. Southern California’s passenger rail system was effectively destroyed.
As a young man, Wolfe’s focus had been on transportation, interplanetary transportation. He had obtained a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from USC. Thereafter, he had refocused on more down-to-earth technologies, obtaining a master’s degree in in civil engineering from the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. He qualified as a registered civil engineer, and in 1991 went to work for the California Department of Transportation as a transportation engineer. In 1997, he began work on his doctorate in civil engineering at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. In 1998, he was promoted to the position of senior bridge engineer, and in 2001 was entrusted with the assignment of opening a new bridge design office in Southern California as the region’s supervising bridge engineer. In 2002, he was awarded his doctorate. Thereafter he managed the structure design implementation efforts related to accelerated bridge construction throughout Southern California. In 2008, the California Department of Transportation, known by its acronym Caltrans, designated him as the director of its District 8 office, overseeing both San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
During his time with Caltrans, Wolfe became intimately familiar with that agency’s resources and its regional and local functions. Beginning in 2008, he was delegated an ex-officio member of the San Bernardino Association of Governments board. There were few on that board who were not impressed by his command of the technical issues relating to constructing roads, bridges or highways and his ability to adequately anticipate complications, costs and considerations relating to contemplated or actual transportation-related undertakings.
By that point, SANBAG had evolved beyond its beginnings as a council of governments and a subregional planning agency and had adopted as its primary role serving as the county’s transportation agency. In that capacity, it was the service authority for freeway emergencies and the transportation system congestion management agency and, most significantly, the entity entrusted as both the custodian of and arbiter for the expenditure of the money collected in San Bernardino County as a consequence of the original 1989 passage and 2004 extension of Measure I, the countywide half-cent sales tax override devoted entirely to transportation-related improvements.
In November 1991, two years after the original passage of Measure I, roughly 95 percent of 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County was comprised of unincorporated county areas, 21 cities and one incorporated town. Later that month, on November 27, 1991, the Town of Yucca Valley became San Bernardino County’s 23rd incorporated municipality. Four days later, on December 1, 1991, Chino Hills became San Bernardino County’s 24th incorporated municipality. Since that time, SANBAG and its dual successors, SBCTA – the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency – and SBCOG – the San Bernardino Council of Governments – have boards consisting of 29 voting members, consisting of a mayor or council member from each of the county’s 22 cities and two incorporated towns and all five members of the board of supervisors.
San Bernardino County is the largest county in the lower 48 states. Indeed, it is larger than Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware and New Hampshire, combined. With so much territory and so many voting constituents on the SANBAG board, the demands on its management were extraordinary, even for those of governmental entities. Typical city managers in San Bernardino County had to answer to five members of a city council or, in the cases of three of the cities, seven members.
With Deborah Barmack’s retirement as SANBAG’s executive director in 2011, Ty Schuiling served in the capacity of interim director for a duration, at which point Dr. Wolfe was induced to come in as Barmack’s full-fledged replacement. In lieu of the $124,869.89 in salary and roughly $75,000 in benefits he was making with Caltrans, the SANBAG board offered him $212,530 in annual salary, another $21,000 in pay add-ons and $74,967.81 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $308,497.81 to start.
Wolfe, as SBCTA executive director, has 29 political masters, each with different expectations, priorities and demands. Well before Wolfe’s arrival as director, SANBAG had set its methodology for prioritizing the projects and programs that are to be paid for with the Measure I revenue along with any other state or federal funding the agency receives. An overarching principle in San Bernardino County has long been ensuring that traffic continues to flow on the regional transportation system by which the county’s residents make their several ways to their places of employment on a daily basis.
The I-10 Freeway, which was conceptually laid out to span the continent from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, Florida by the Federal Highway Administration in 1947 and came into existence in California during the Eisenhower Administration, runs east from Los Angeles through San Bernardino County to Riverside County and Palm Springs and beyond. It was the original and remains the major freeway from San Bernardino County to Los Angeles. By the mid-1960s, it was beset with standstill traffic westbound beginning with the “rush hour” between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. involving commuters heading into the megalopolis to work in the morning and similar traffic backups of eastbound traffic beginning around 5 p.m. in the late afternoon and early evening of weekdays. In 1969, following the redesignation of a similarly numbered east-west route, the 60 Freeway running from Los Angeles County in the west through south San Bernardino County and then into Riverside County opened, alleviating, for a time the logjam on the 10 Freeway. Nevertheless, with the explosive growth that took place in Southern California after the Second World War continuing apace throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, by the mid-1970s both freeways were overburdened.
In 2002, the western segment of the I-210 Freeway from Glendora opened, creating what was essentially a third east-west freeway in San Bernardino County linking it with Los Angeles County. Again, this temporarily alleviated some of the flow off of the 10 and 60 freeways in the morning and late afternoon/early evening, but within three years all three freeways again regularly jammed up on a daily basis, Monday through Friday.
In 1992, the Metrolink commuter rail system was established between Union Station in Los Angeles and the City of San Bernardino on a long existing track originally designed for heavy engines pulling freight cars. Metrolink utilizes diesel engines to pull its passenger cars and must share its track with four freight trains on a daily basis, such that at present it features 17 departures daily from Downtown San Bernardino to Union Station in Los Angeles and 17 departures daily from Union Station to San Bernardino. The most frequent departures of Metrolink from San Bernardino to Los Angeles are the ten between 3:41 am and 9:38 am, averaging one every 45 minutes and 42 seconds. The most frequent departures of Metrolink from Los Angeles to San Bernardino are the ten between 3:38 p.m. and 9:38 p.m. every afternoon and evening, one every 36 minutes. The traveling time between San Bernardino and Los Angeles on Metrolink runs between one hour and 35 minutes to one hour and 40 minutes. The traveling time between Los Angeles and San Bernardino on Metrolink runs between one hour and 43 minutes and one hour and 48 minutes.
In 2003, the first link of the light passenger rail Gold Line was established between Union Station and Sierra Madre Villa in Los Angeles County. Over $1 billion has been expended extending the Gold Line, consisting of a light rail train on two separate tracks running northerly from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Foothill communities and then west-to-east, currently to Azusa and, conversely, back from Azusa to Union Station. The Gold Line runs with significantly greater frequency than does Metrolink, with 106 departures daily from the station at Azusa Pacific University to Union Station per day from 4 a.m. to 12:50 a.m. The trains run every 9 minutes at peak usage times to every 20 minutes during late morning, mid-afternoon and later evening hours. The Gold Line offers 105 departures daily from Union Station to Azusa between 4:02 a.m. and 1:02 a.m., with trains running every 8 minutes during peak commuting hours and every 24 minutes during off-peak hours.
While at one point ridership on Metrolink neared 30 percent capacity, it dropped considerably, rarely achieving 20 percent capacity for nearly two decades. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, ridership on Metrolink decreased precipitously. At present, Metrolink trains remain nearly 95 percent empty. In some cases, as in Rancho Cucamonga, elected officials took action which discouraged ridership, such as ending free parking at the Metrolink station and imposing a per day charge for use of the parking spaces at its car lot.
With each progression of the Gold Line eastward in the San Gabriel Valley, ridership increased until in eclipsed 50,000 riders on weekdays in 2016, continuing to expand thereafter. Though the number of passengers dipped with the onset of the coronavirus crisis in 2020, usage has now returned to pre-pandemic levels. Enthusiasm for the light rail travel mode expanded by astounding proportions in comparison to that of Metrolink. During peak usage times, the cars would be filled to near or actual capacity.
Under Barmack’s direction, SANBAG came to embrace the concept of extending the Gold Line to the Montclair Transit Center just across the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County boundary, with the tacit expectation that it would thereafter eventually continue to Ontario Airport, and the suggestion that the line would by the mid-21st Century reach San Bernardino and beyond, ultimately to be taken on as a project by transportation authorities in Riverside County, where the line would run to Palm Springs.
Upon Wolfe’s hiring as SANBAG’s executive director, the agency continued on a trajectory toward seeing the continuing eastern projection of the Gold Line, with a yet-to-be-realized phase extending it from Pomona through Claremont to Montclair.
To cover the portion of the distance on the San Bernardino County side of the county line, the cost for that span was projected to cost $80 million. Upon the Los Angeles County-based Gold Line Construction Authority having committed toward what is to be the next nine-mile, $806 million extension of the light rail line from Azusa to northern Pomona, Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County transportation officials began to look toward pressing forward with the 3.3-mile extension from Pomona through Claremont to Montclair’s transit center that would come after that, which was estimated to cost $450 million. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee committed to holding the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, a reprise of what had occurred in 1932 and 1984. This provoked serious contemplation at multiple levels of dynamically speeding up the timetable for the construction of the Gold Line such that it would be intact all the way to Ontario Airport and running by Summer 2028.
The SANBAG/San Bernardino County Transportation Authority dedicated $39 million in Measure I dollars toward the Gold Line project and did a joint application with the Los Angeles Metro Transit Agency for a State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant. That application was successful and it brought in $250 million on the Los Angeles County side, which made a significant but not complete inroad on the funding deficit that jurisdiction had, and provided another $41 million of the then-projected $80 million cost for the San Bernardino County portion of the projected expense on the eastern side of the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County border in terms of getting the line to Montclair.
Subsequently, however, when the project went out to bid, it turned out the cost of building the line from Claremont to Montclair would not contain itself to an earlier $73 million projection or the later $80 million estimate, but had escalated to $96 million.
In reaction to that projected cost overrun, Wolfe in September 2019 signaled to the authority’s board his recommendation that “we throw in the towel” on the Gold Line extension effort.
Wolfe made good on that at the October 10, 2019 San Bernardino County Transportation Agency’s transit subcommittee meeting, telling the committee members that it was his recommendation that SBCTA dispense with constructing the new Gold Line track into San Bernardino County altogether and to instead have Gold Line passengers heading eastward from Los Angeles or the San Gabriel Valley load onto another train at the Claremont Station which will run on the existing Metrolink track. That system will use so-called diesel multiple unit trains in what he said was a “hybrid” plan which he dubbed the “Gold Link.” Wolfe said San Bernardino County should return the $41 million State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant.
The SBCTA Transit Subcommittee, composed of representatives from the cities of Big Bear Lake, Chino Hills, Colton, Fontana, Highland, Montclair, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Rialto, Yucaipa and the Third Supervisorial District, voted on his recommendation. Ultimately, the transit subcommittee backed Wolfe, with Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and the representatives of the cities of Yucaipa, Highland, Rialto, Big Bear Lake, Colton, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga supporting him. Only Montclair, Ontario and Chino Hills opposed his plan to scrub the county’s support of the Gold Line.
Wolfe’s leadership in this instance dismayed a number of decisionmakers, urban planners and futurists who took for granted that he shared with them a vision and understanding of what is to become the commuting methodology of the future. Among those were Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-41st District), State Senator Henry Portantino (D-25th District) and a host of Wolfe’s counterparts with transportation agencies in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
The 7 am-to-8 am and 5 pm-to-6 pm backup on the 10 Freeway in the mid-1960s has now turned into 6 am-to-9:30 am and 3:30 pm to 7 pm gridlock on the 60, 10 and 210 freeways. The only prospect for resolving that issue is an alternative commuting option, some officials and urban planners say. The Gold Line – the 21st Century equivalent of the Red Line that Alfred P. Sloan destroyed, many insist, is that option.
Paul Leon was member of the Ontario City Council from 1998 until 2005, and he has been Ontario Mayor since 2005.
“We are faced with this monster we call addressing the gridlock on our freeways and we are continually paying huge amounts of money to feed that monster,” Leon said. “But every time we do, we don’t have enough money to slay the monster and it keeps growing and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Leon said, “We were told that if we built the 210 Freeway it would serve to end the congestion on the 10 Freeway, and so we built the 210 Freeway and now what we have is congestion on the 210 Freeway and 10 Freeway and the 60 Freeway.”
The answer does not consist of trying to accommodate more cars on the freeway, Mayor Leon said. “The number of cars will continue, for the foreseeable future, to grow faster than we can add lanes to the freeway,” he said. “There’s an absolute limit on how wide we can go with the freeway. We’re putting in four new toll lanes on the 10 Freeway now. That’s close to the limit.”
The Gold Line is the one available solution that can be pursued, he said. “The Gold Line consists of dual trains on two separate parallel tracks running into and out of Los Angeles with departures in either direction five to six times an hour,” he said. “Go to Azusa, or Duarte, or Monrovia or Pasadena. Those trains are packed, in either direction. If you can’t get on or you miss the train, there’s another one in eight or twelve minutes. It’s reliable. In Los Angeles, it is diverting a significant number of commuters off the freeway. That is what we need here.”
John Dutrey, Montclair’s mayor, diplomatically stated that he harbors hope the October 2019 decision to abandon the Gold Line in San Bernardino County can be reversed.
For a multitude of reasons, futurists and those looking at the shortcomings in the current regional transportation system were baffled by Wolfe’s decision to terminate San Bernardino County’s participation in the Gold Line undertaking. Not only did that project offer the most likely means of transferring commuters traveling one or two people to a car into passenger rail cars carrying several hundred riders at once, they say, but substantial grant money – well over $3 billion – from state and federal sources is available to the county to defray a substantial portion of the $6 billion to $6.55 billion cost of constructing the Gold Line to San Bernardino. Committing to the completion of the project now and securing right-of-way earlier rather than later will drive down that cost, the light rail project’s supporters maintain. Wolfe’s decision to limit San Bernardino County’s rail passenger service operations to the single existing track in place now used by Metrolink and freight trains holds no realistic prospect in the current generation or the next of generating sufficient commuter rail ridership to put a dent in the overburdened freeway system and the gridlock that besets it, they insist.
Wolfe’s counsel to the SBCTA board with regard to the Gold Line has not been the only element of his regional transportation strategy that has come under fire.
He has been assailed for failing to correct the financing arrangements committed to by the politicians heading SANBAG from the inception of the Measure I taxing/revenue generating mechanism which his predecessors as SANBAG’s/SBCTA’s administrators simply went along with, that being reliance on bond issuances. In this way, many see the decision of the SANBAG board, in the immediate aftermath of the initial passage of Measure I in 1989, to use its taxing authority to issue and sell tax bonds to carry out the transportation projects described in the expenditure plan that had been developed by SANBAG staff and the politicians that made up the SANBAG board as a colossal faux pas. Because the previous staff leadership with SANBAG did not have the courage or character to stand up to its political masters and insist that SANBAG exercise patience so that it could devote the Measure I funds to making actual capital improvements rather than committing to spending a major portion of that funding on debt service did not mean that Wolfe had to shrink from insisting that the politicians he was working for impose financial discipline on themselves and reverse that course, fiscal conservatives say. Under Wolfe, they assert, the squandering of Measure I funds that was ongoing long before his arrival as head of SANBAG and what is now SBCTA, which they see as having been a flaw in SANBAG from its inception, was perpetuated after Wolfe arrived. It is their perception that Wolfe, just as his predecessors, lacks the character and courage to stand up to his political masters to inform them that their continuing to indulge their own political vanity is contrary to those politicians’ constituents’ true interests.
Wolfe, as one of the most handsomely paid government functionaries in San Bernardino County, with a total annual compensation package which has at this point grown to $564,568.45 per year, values keeping his job and his salary and benefits too much to confront the politicians who employ him, they say. Thus, they say there is no prospect Wolfe will take on the task of trying to convince the SBCTA board that having the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority continuing to rely on bond financing in a way that diverts taxpayer money to paying for bond debt servicing rather than capital improvements limits the inroads the county and its cities could otherwise be making against the region’s transportation challenges. If from the outset of his time as SANBAG executive director Wolfe had been truly courageous enough to serve the taxpayers, they assert, he would have risked displeasing the SANBAG/SBCTA board by convincing them to defer further capital projects until the agency’s bonded indebtedness was retired once and for all, such that the agency by this point would be able to directly use the influx of Measure I money and state and federal grants to pay as it goes using its taxpayer-provided revenue without relying upon bond issuances. In this way, Wolfe’s critics maintain he has squandered the nearly ten years he has been in position as the SANBAG/SBCTA executive director by not standing up to his political masters and inspiring them to put the interests of their constituents and the taxpayers who pay his salary ahead of those politicians’ crass political interest and lead them to correct the mistakes of the past by getting the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency off the bonded indebtedness debt-servicing treadmill.
There is a countervailing school of thought, one to which Wolfe adheres, that with the constant rise in costs, increasing wages and the price of materials it is better for an agency such as SBCTA to begin work on infrastructure projects immediately in an attempt to beat inflation by getting the projects done before costs escalate. This requires borrowing against the agency’s assets and future revenue when interest rates are low enough to get ahead of inflation. That strategy can indeed work, but it is a risky venture subject to market rates and unpredictable economic vicissitudes.
An outgrowth of the diversion of Measure I money to cover the agency’s bonded indebtedness is that funding for actual capital improvements that would provide a wider and better range of transportation options is lacking and the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency finds itself in the position of turning to solutions that are less than ideal. One of these is the county’s reliance on the underused single-track Metrolink system with its infrequent departures and arrivals rather than the heavily used double-track Gold Line, which is also referred to as the L-Line, with its highly reliable and frequent departures and arrivals.
Another crucial shortcoming because of the diversion of taxpayer revenue is that SBCTA does not have adequate funds to maximize the width of the existing freeway rights-of-way through San Bernardino County through the addition of lanes. So, instead of simply adding those lanes and paying for that expansion with Measure I revenue and whatever available federal and state grants might come its way, SBCTA undertook to widen the 10 Freeway by four lanes running from the county line in Montclair all the way to Fontana, a project that is yet ongoing, through a funding scheme that involves developing both lanes going east and both lanes going west as toll lanes.
It is the I-10 toll lane project, one that critics say will upon its completion be readily apparent as a failure of the county’s political leadership to deal with its transportation challenges, that represents what will predictably be the most serious threat to Wolfe’s tenure as SBCTA’s leader.
There is no mistaking that the work on the I-10 Freeway now under way is both impressive and extensive; upon completion the existing four lanes in both directions will be increased by two each, transforming the freeway in that span from a modern eight lane interstate to a 12-lane superhighway.
Since last September, the Sentinel has spoken with a cross section of county residents who use the Interstate 10 Freeway on a constant basis, primarily in traveling to and from their place of employment. Most lament the construction along the freeway, involving lane closures and temporary narrowing of the entire thoroughfare, as bothersome, indeed irritating, but generally reflect a stoic and understanding resignation at having to deal with a situation in which they have no choice. A recurrent theme is that they are putting up with the hassle because they anticipate being patient will, in time and upon the completion of the project, make the freeway safer and more travelable, increasing the freeway’s current capacity by half again.
Upon being told that the new lanes will not be in place until 2024, most expressed dismay at having to endure the current situation for another two years.
That sentiment was mild, however, in comparison to the reaction members of the common citizenry express upon being informed that the construction work they are encountering on a daily basis is taking place to make way for toll lanes being added to the freeway, ones they will need to pay for in order to use.
While it is true that many or most local elected officials know the nature of the lanes being constructed, virtually no citizens at large know they are to be charged a fee for using them.
The arguments against establishing freeway toll lanes are myriad.
The right-of-way where the toll lanes are to be established are public property, paid for decades ago by the state’s taxpayers. In addition, Californians pay the highest state gas taxes in the nation, creating a revenue stream that is intended to provide highway infrastructure and defray the cost of transportation improvements.
While toll roads, sometimes referred to as turnpikes, have long existed in the United States, they were historically nonexistent in California until relatively late in the 20th Century, when they emerged as privately owned routes that were alternatives to public roads and highways. Toll bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area were extant. In Northern California there are toll lanes, referred to as express lanes, on the 580, 680, 880 and 237 freeways. More than three decades ago, toll lanes were established on State Routes 73, 133, 241 and 261 in Orange County followed by express lanes on the 91 Freeway. There are express lanes on the 15 Freeway in San Diego County. What are referred to as Metro Express lanes debuted in Los Angeles County in 2012 on the I-10 and 110 freeways.
San Bernardino County was a holdout against toll lanes, but in 2014, after Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Lloyd D. Michael became the president of SANBAG, Wolfe, wrestling with intractable financial issues, began pushing for San Bernardino County to construct toll lanes.
The concept was by no means universally accepted.
Then-Fontana City Councilman Michael Tahan, who represented his city on the SANBAG board, resisted the idea, as did others. The proposed additions to the freeway were denounced by opponents as “Rolls Royce lanes” or “Cadillac lanes” or Mercedes lanes” or “Lexus lanes” or “Diamond lanes for the rich” by opponents, who said only the wealthy would be able to afford to use them.
There were arguments presented against the toll lanes along practical grounds, including that they would not lessen gridlock but intensify it. Observation of toll roads elsewhere in Southern California – in Los Angeles County and Orange County – demonstrates that the freeways where they are located are regularly tied up, with the toll lanes being marginally used, with occasional solo drivers purchasing the ability to drive in what are otherwise carpool lanes
This creates a spectacle whereby three, four or even five lanes of traffic will be very slow moving or not moving, while next to them is or are one or two lanes being hardly used at all in which cars are zooming by at speeds nearing, at or exceeding the speed limit. In this way, travel space on the freeway is squandered, and the lion’s share of traffic moves at a far slower pace than it would if all lanes were available to the freeway’s users.
Whether out of principle or financial consideration, the majority of freeway motorists in Southern California are unwilling to pay the money required to utilize toll lanes. For a significant number of people – perhaps even a majority of people – this comes across as unfair and an unwise apportionment of public money. California’s motorists pay substantial vehicle licensing fees and an exorbitant gasoline tax. In San Bernardino County, residents have elected to pay the Measure I tax based upon the assurance the money would be used to facilitate the construction of adequate transportation infrastructure. Yet, in San Bernardino County at present, those using the 10 Freeway are being forced to spend more time on the freeway than they would otherwise because of the ongoing construction of the toll lanes, and when that construction is completed, the vast majority of them will see virtually no personal benefit whatsoever. Those residents, as taxpayers, were and are in some fashion supporting the cost of creating a freeway system for collective use. Yet the toll system being built will exclude them from using the lanes being built within the freeway system they are paying for, unless they are willing to pay more money on top of the taxes and fees they have already paid.
The SANBAG board in 2015, upon considering all factors, in particular that there was inadequate revenue flowing into SANBAG’s coffers to pay for increasing the number of lanes on the freeway, opted to undertake the toll lane project.
Of note is that in Orange County, the toll lanes built on state routes 73, 133, 241 and 261 were completed without, officials claim, the use of public funds, but rather were financed through the issuance of a special class of bonds dubbed “toll revenue bonds” sold to private investors. The bonds are debt serviced by the tolls and development impact fees imposed on the development industry and collected by the various local governments where the toll roads exist. The concept in Orange County was that over the 30-year life of the bonds, the debt to the bondholders would essentially be serviced by the tolls paid by the toll road users, and after the bonded indebtedness was retired in full, the toll roads, which are owned by the California Department of Transportation, would cease being toll roads and become integrated with the existing non-fee lanes on those state routes. Because the toll roads were not used to the extent anticipated, the bonds were not debt serviced in conformance with the scheduled pay-off plan. As a consequence, the absorption of the toll roads into the regional road infrastructure such that everyone can use them without paying – which was supposed to have occurred by now – has not yet taken place. Those stretches of state highway will remain as toll roads until 2050.
In the case of the toll roads in San Bernardino County, involving both those to be constructed on the I-10 Freeway and on the I-15 Freeway as well, the financing is being handled through the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency. Yet there has been no explicit public discussion with regard to the eventual sunsetting of the lanes as ones requiring a toll for their use, leaving open the possibility that they will remain toll lanes into perpetuity.
The circle of those responsible for the conception and actuation of the San Bernardino County toll lane plan is a small one. Foremost within that group is Wolfe, as SBCTA’s executive director, and the politicians that represent the cities where the toll lanes are to be located. Those include Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Lloyd D. Michael, who was president of the SANBAG board when the San Bernardino County toll road plan was hatched, former Montclair Councilman and now Mayor John Dutrey, his city’s representative on the SBCTA board; Upland Councilman Carlos Garcia, Upland’s representative on the SBCTA board; Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, his city’s representative on the SBCTA board; along with Second District County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who represents a portion of Upland and all of Rancho Cucamonga, and current SBCTA President Curt Hagman, who represents a portion of Upland and all of Ontario and Montclair.
The majority of the past and current members of the SBCTA board acceded to establishing the I-10 toll lanes.
In addition to being SBCTA chairman, Hagman, is now the chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Moreover, the cities of Montclair, Upland and Ontario, through which the I-10 toll lanes will run, lie within Hagman’s Fourth District. Nevertheless, Hagman steadfastly refuses to publicly discuss SBCTA’s commitment to establishing the toll lanes on the 10 Freeway. In referencing the project, he makes allusion to adding lanes, but does not mention that motorists will have to pay to use them. He is standing for reelection this year.
Similarly, Wapner is set to run for reelection in Ontario this year. He, too, has refused to go on record with regard to the toll lanes, aware that the vast majority of his constituents have no inkling that in order for them to use the lanes on the I-10 Freeway that are now being constructed in their city and are scheduled for completion in two years they will be charged a fee. Keeping those who will be called upon to vote either for him or his competitors in this year’s election in the dark on that issue will enhance his reelection chances.
Dutrey is likewise up for reelection this year.
Councilman Garcia was not a member of the Upland City Council and therefore not a board member with SANBAG when the decision to go forward with creating the I-10 toll lanes was made.
Supervisor Rutherford said that she “reluctantly” supported the toll lane project because SANBAG/SBCTA had committed its available revenue elsewhere and the funding to widen the freeway was not available. She will be termed out of office at the end of the year.
Mayor Michael was unwilling to get into a public discussion relating to the toll lanes. He, too, is scheduled to stand for reelection this year.
In this way, Hagman, Wapner, Dutrey, Garcia and Michael are whistling past the political graveyard, seeking to ignore an issue in the here and now that will not manifest as truly problematic until after this year’s election. Thus, they hope, they can parlay their incumbency into reelection this year without having to answer the questions regarding the I-10 toll lanes that many of their colleagues whose terms will elapse two years hence will be faced with then.
For virtually all of those involved with SBCTA – board members or staff – they currently enjoy the luxury of the public’s lack of awareness that the current augmentation of the I-10 Freeway consists of toll lanes, and the concomitant misassumption that the project involves a widening of the freeway which upon completion will be of use and benefit to all motorists using the freeway.
That grace period will come to a close as soon as the lanes are in place along with the signs and electronic devices that will warn against and restrict anyone who has not paid a toll from using them, at which point more the nearly 200,000 residents of San Bernardino County who traverse the I-10 Freeway every weekday to get to work will be angrier than wet hornets. Thus, the situation will be getting ugly, some members of the SBCTA board acknowledged.
“I would imagine there is going to be some controversy,” Chino Mayor Eunice Ulloa, her city’s SBCTA representative, told the Sentinel in January. “Though many articles informing the public of what is going to happen have been written and published, I don’t think people know that is what is coming. I don’t think the public is tuned into what’s happening. I would guess that the majority of people will not be real happy with having to pay to use the freeway.”
Ulloa said the county’s residents rightfully feel that they have paid for the extra lanes on the I-10 that are being built.
“The people passed Measure I, the half-cent sales tax, and it was supposed to help with transportation issues, but like everything these days, the money does not go as far as we would like it to,” she said. “In order to reduce congestion on the freeways, the powers that be felt that toll lanes would help to reduce the gridlock. That remains to be seen. Many of us were not convinced that was the best way to go. “
Ulloa continued, “There is a question about the best and most efficient way to spend our local tax dollars.”
If the current schedule holds, the toll lanes on the I-10 will open in the spring of 2024. That year, some 13 of the 29 elected members of the SBCTA board are scheduled to stand for reelection. There exists a possibility, indeed a likelihood, that those politicians will seek a scapegoat to deflect the voter anger that will manifest that year in an effort to remain in office, if indeed those 13 do not opt out of seeking reelection. As the top staff member who formulated and recommended the I-10 toll lane program, Wolfe is that logical scapegoat.
Certainly, there are those who defend freeway toll lanes conceptually and practically, maintaining that they represent a means of decreasing freeway congestion and offer a practical way of defraying the cost of constructing additional lanes.
Nevertheless, several San Bernardino County politicians, including those involved in the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, have indicated that Wolfe’s continued tenure as the agency’s director is virtually inconceivable beyond 2024, and that the only question is whether Wolfe will voluntarily choose to depart or be subject to an ignominious removal against his will.
Beginning last year, the Sentinel peppered Wolfe with dozens of questions pertaining to issues relating to the county’s transportation challenges. Expressing concern that allowing himself to be pinned down with regard to specifics might play into the hands of his critics, Wolfe declined to answer those inquiries.
In doing so, Wolfe declined to mount a defense of constructing toll lanes on the 10 Freeway, and he was unwilling to say whether a compromise could be reached by which just two of the lanes – one eastbound and one westbound – would be utilized as toll lanes to allow the other additional lanes to be available as general-purpose lanes. Similarly, Wolfe was not prepared to say what SBCTA anticipates will be the percentage of the traffic flow on the 10 Freeway that will pay to use toll lanes nor whether SBCTA expects the toll lanes to be constructed to bear less traffic on average, per lane, than the freeway’s non-toll lanes. Wolfe did not engage in a discussion relating to whether the right-of-way for the entirety of the 10 Freeway had been acquired independent of and previous to the effort to augment it with toll lanes and he refused to be drawn into detailing how much of the cost of constructing the toll lanes was being defrayed by Measure I revenue or other taxpayer-derived funding. Wolfe was similarly unwilling to address assertions by the toll lanes’ opponents that the tolls to be collected for their use would amount to double, triple or even quadruple taxation given that the state’s residents were already subject to general taxation and were paying gasoline tax expressly collected to pay for highway improvements and that San Bernardino County residents had voluntarily subjected themselves to an added half-cent sale tax burden to pay for transportation fixes. Wolfe was unwilling to state whether he did or did not recognize that the vast majority of the county’s residents did not know that the construction activity ongoing on the 10 Freeway from Montclair to Fontana was being undertaken to create toll lanes. Wolfe would not say whether he anticipated a significant manifestation of citizen, resident and commuter discontent upon the opening of the toll lanes or if he believed that the citizen discontent that might manifest will translate into calls for his removal as the executive director of SBCTA. Asked if he believed that in the face of such resident and commuter discontent whether the SBCTA board would stand by him, Wolfe ventured no response.
Leon addressed the varying perceptions of whether it is Wolfe who is in charge of the machinery relating to the formation of regional transportation policy or whether he is merely trying to be responsive to an unwieldy number of political masters – those composing the SANBAG/SBCTA board – who are going in multiple directions at once and therefore are making the formulation of a cogent and productive policy nearly impossible.
“From the time right after I was elected mayor in 2005 until 2008, when Alan Wapner replaced me, I was Ontario’s representative to SANBAG,” Leon said. “I was also the city representative on the Southern California Association of Governments and the regional airport authority. At that time, I was very sensitive to the dynamics of the varying leaderships of the groups who made up the majority of those boards. I had to know all the players in order to be effective and to get anything done. The manager of every one of those collectives – Hasan Ikhrata, who was the head of SCAG [the Southern California Association of Governments]; Mark Pisano, who held the position before him; Deborah Barmack, who was the executive director of SANBAG – everyone I have ever seen in those positions, in order to do anything creative, had to keep fulfilling the wishes of that meandering authority that is their board of directors. To accomplish anything in a position like that, they have to keep their jobs. The executive is the person driving the buggy, and there is a concerted effort to get him or her on board so that person could be in control. Hasan [Ikhrata] was able to hold the reins and listen to the riders in the carriage and go left and then go right, speed up when there was an open road and slow down to avoid a collision or overturning the buggy and keep a hold of the reins and the whip. It was the same way with Deborah [Barmack]. Ray [Wolfe] is now the main guy, and he knows how to hold the reins and control the horses and listen to all of the riders at the same time. I used to disrespect him until I realized how good he was at doing that. There are things he can do and there are things he can’t do. If he puts his foot down and says, ‘There is a better way than the way we are doing it and we need to do it this way,’ and it gets contentious, the board majority is very likely to say, ‘We disagree. We need to do it this way,’ and then they will say ‘We do not need you anymore.’ They will take the reins out of his hand, and he won’t be driving the buggy anymore. When you look at the executive directors of these large regional joint power authorities, like SCAG and SBCTA, the people in those positions are great at keeping their jobs and they are able to compromise their goals vs. doing what the people on the board who are in the majority want to do.”
Someone like Wolfe is intelligent and foresightful enough to understand what should be done and what is best overall but he is also sensitive to political nuance and the reality of power to recognize that sometimes what needs to be done for the collective good and what can be done given the political lay of the land are two different things, Leon said. Moreover, Wolfe is efficient and competent as an administrator who can run a large organization, capable of delivering most if not all of what the board expects, the mayor said, and this makes Wolfe a survivor. By delivering on the little things that matter in all the separate jurisdictions – a bridge in Apple Valley, a grade separation in Montclair, new freeway on and off ramps in Fontana and Yucaipa, a rail extension to Redlands, a railroad underpass in Hesperia, a fast bus line in San Bernardino – Wolfe has pleased virtually everyone on the board, even if the grandest achievements he could achieve – a dual-tracked rail line that will carry tens of thousands of commuters into and out of Los Angeles on a daily basis and 14-general purpose lane freeways traversing the county with no gridlock back-ups – have not been attained, Leon said.
“You can fight for something you believe in, but you have to consider what the point is of fighting for something if you lose the position you are in that allows you to accomplish what you are fighting for,” Leon said. “Fighting can mean you lose the job you have been given. The executive management game is managing. Managing means putting into effect what you are being asked to do. When you look at the way that works, in time you come to understand why and who seems to come and go in like positions. It doesn’t matter if he has lofty thoughts and ideas if he can’t carry them out because he doesn’t have the support of the board. He understands his job security comes with working with the leadership of the board. He stays in his own lane. If he had pressed his personal agenda, he’d be gone by now.”
From his perspective, Leon said, he wishes Wolfe was more willing to push the SBCTA board to commit to the light rail concept. He said the current board has lost the resolve it had a decade-and-a-half ago when he was a member.
“When Deborah Barmack was the executive director, there was a consensus to bring the Gold Line to Ontario Airport,” Leon said. “She loved the idea. She never once said, ‘How are we going to do this?’ It was understood by the board, or most of it, that light rail was the wave of the future. When Ray came in, it looked like he was on board. I think he was on board. But then he took over that whole idea and eventually changed it, eliminating the dual tracks, with transferences to buses.”
Chino Hills Mayor Ray Marquez said the perception that Wolfe is not committed to the rail component of the region’s transportation system is inaccurate. He pointed out that he had championed the concept of the Redlands Rail Project, which effectively extended the Metrolink line from San Bernardino to Redlands. He pointed out that Wolfe is doing everything he can to facilitate Brightline’s effort to construct a high-speed rail line from Victorville to Las Vegas, and that the Brightline system will at some later date entail an extension from Victorville to Rancho Cucamonga and then future highspeed connections from Los Angeles and Anaheim to Rancho Cucamonga.
To say Wolfe is responsible for the discontinuation of the effort to bring the Gold Line through into San Bernardino County is not exactly fair, Marquez said.
“I don’t think he abandoned it as much as he just realized what the cost was,” Marquez said. “He was very conscious of the expense. [Montclair Mayor] John Dutrey wants it to move through our county, certainly to Montclair, and all the way to the airport [in Ontario], as do the folks there.”
Marquez suggested that Los Angeles municipal officials and Los Angeles County officials, who are hugely committed at this point to the light rail concept, needed to be more conscientious with respect to keeping their counterparts in San Bernardino County up to speed on the project and assist in bringing in funding from federal and state sources if they want to extend the project further east.
“I was not a part of that ad hoc committee, but my understanding was that the Gold Line Authority was not communicating with SBCTA like it should have,” Marquez said. “Questions abounded as to who would pay for the extension going into San Bernardino County. Many of us thought we were going to get funding that would cover a substantial degree of the development of that line. That money hasn’t materialized. Ray wanted to be crystal clear on who was going to pay that. That was his push back, or at least that is how I understood it.”
Rhodes Rigsby, who has been on the Loma Linda City Council since 2006 and was elevated by his council colleagues to serve as mayor from 2010 until 2020, has been a constant member of the SANBAG/SBCTA board for more than a decade.
Those criticizing Wolfe have little or no conception of the milieu in which he must function, Rigsby said. He pointed out that under SBCTA’s organizational structure, no single board member can dominate the funding priorities.
“There are dozens of highway, highway interchange, and surface street projects that are needed in our county,” Rigsby said. “SBCTA studies each project’s needs and costs and prioritizes and sequences the projects, with the most dire needs met first. As an organization we live within our means, so as the funding becomes available, whether from Measure I or local matching dollars or federal or state grants, we fund the projects in order of their pre-determined priority. Only rarely is the sequence changed. Once the priorities have been set, there is not supposed to be any jockeying for position. When the funds come in, the projects are initiated in order. We fill each cup with as much money as comes in that year. There is not really much the board members can do to affect that. If someone wanted to change the priority list, it would be one vote in favor and 28 against. Nobody ever changes the order because that order was determined objectively. If you try to reprioritize or jump your project ahead, you gore the other oxen who have all waited ten or fifteen years for their projects to begin.”
Functioning within those parameters, Wolfe is as good a director of its transportation agency as San Bernardino County is going to get, Rigsby opined.
“When I look at what he does, he knows the corridors of power, where the state and federal dollars are,” said Rigsby. “He knows how to get money. He knows how to get our regional priorities registered with the state on a par with Los Angeles County. That is one of his skills. Because of his prior association with Caltrans, he has access in Sacramento, connections. He is accomplished at running a large and sophisticated operation such as SBCTA. He is highly intelligent and superbly educated. Not many executive directors of governmental agencies have a PhD in engineering. He is a good manager, and he has recruited an excellent team. He has a well-balanced skill set. I, personally, could not be more pleased with his performance. He does very well with things that are possible to do. He can’t do miracles. He does a pretty good job of making us a high priority for state funding, and that is about the most he can do or what we can expect for SBCTA’s advocacy work.”
Attacks aimed at Wolfe because the region’s commuter rail system is underperforming are ill-placed, Rigsby suggested.
“Trains are a special subject mainly because there are a lot of people who like trains, regardless of the cost,” Rigsby said in reference to urban planners and futurists. The problem is that the vast majority of the population in Southern California is wedded to the automobile, he said.
“There is insufficient interest in Southern California in riding a commuter rail system,” Rigsby said. “My concern and the concern of others is over the dollar value of mass transit. You can do a standard analysis and calculate how much it costs per trip to build it and to operate it. It is an astoundingly high amount of subsidy per ride, but advocates always toggle between two responses to cost concerns: 1) ‘Every transportation modality needs subsidy,’ and 2) ‘Don’t worry, the feds will print the money, so you don’t have to pay for it.’ You have officials who just shovel money into these transit projects on the Field of Dreams model of ‘If you build it, they will come.’ One example is that the federal transit bureaucracy permits use of overly optimistic ridership projections, and there are no negative consequences when the error is revealed, because their entire bureaucratic purpose is to fund transit, and fund it they will.“
The simple truth, Rigsby said, is the rail system can only handle a fraction – a minute fraction – of the Southland’s commuters.
“Do the math,” he said. “You can fill that train up and have people crammed in there clown-car-like as they do in India, and it still won’t do that much to alleviate the traffic on the freeway. Look at the number of people plodding along on the freeway. That number is huge compared to these trains, and actual ridership is far, far lower, compounded by the fact that only a small portion of the cars on the freeway have a destination anywhere near the railway station. State legislators are planning to combat this unpopularity of transit systems, not by improving transit’s attractions, but rather by erecting more barriers to automobile travel, such as limits on freeway widening, and taxing by vehicle miles traveled.”
Some people want to see public transportation as a panacea, Rigsby said, and that is simply not realistic until automobiles become impossible to use.
Rigsby said he was baffled at any discontent with Wolfe.
“So, is the angle that trains are too expensive or the county wasn’t supportive enough of the Gold Line?” he asked. “I am at the wrong end of the San Bernardino Valley to care much about the Gold Line, and any money spent on it subtracts from, and delays, funding for our longstanding freeway and surface street priorities.”
Rigsby said that at present focus in San Bernardino County on the Gold Line is most intense at the far western extreme of the county in Montclair, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, and Ontario. He said that the October 2019 SBCTA transit committee vote to delay San Bernardino County’s involvement in extending the Gold Line to Montclair was appropriate until two things change: 1) the Los Angeles County portion is funded and progressing, and 2) the cost overruns on the San Bernardino County side are covered by something or someone other than San Bernardino County’s residents.
“In order to get something funded by the state and feds, you have to engage in a negotiation strategy and say, ‘No. We are not going to buy it because it is too expensive,’” Rigsby said. “SBCTAs decision was partly to see if the federal and state governments would sweeten the pot, and partly because we have higher priorities, and the Gold Line can wait, just like everyone else has waited. It simply does not have a good-enough cost/benefit ratio to jump the line.”
Rigsby said the state routinely engaged in flimflammery in the budgetary process by withholding from local jurisdictions the share of transportation-related funding due them.
“The state accumulates surpluses and spends like drunken sailors on pet programs, but chronically underfunds transportation,” Rigsby said. He expressed the view that by originally voting to approve Measure I in 1989 and recommitting to the tax in 2004, San Bernardino County had consented to being “a self-help county. We have agreed to fix our transportation infrastructure ourselves because the state won’t do it. The state has created a logjam every budgetary cycle and by taxing ourselves with Measure I, we are absolving the state’s political leadership for not coming through with the money collected here by the state and which we are owed,” he said, obliquely referencing the gasoline tax and other taxes paid by San Bernardino County’s residents. “That is basically double taxation,” he said. “I resent it. The state legislature has its priorities backward. People are supportive of Measure I. They truthfully say, ‘Measure I has done wonderful things. It has allowed us to build these roads and this bridge and improve our streets.’ I say, ‘Those project should have been funded 100 percent by the state and feds.’”
What Wolfe was doing with his Gold Line recommendation, Rigsby said, was working toward getting San Bernardino County taxpayers their fair share of what is due them by maximizing the state’s contribution toward what is likely to eventually be the biggest-ticket item in the region’s transportation armamentarium.
“The major issue with the Gold Line was prioritization,” Rigsby said. “The most realistic timetable for its completion runs for a period of 30 to 40 years or beyond that. That does not fit our priorities. If that project is to be realized, we will need to apply for grants and federal and state money. It is not the primary or even secondary focus of Measure I money. The consortium building the Gold Line in LA County failed to federalize the project and has thus run out of money. It is not our job to backfill the costs of their errors and missteps. That is why it is not a priority. It would divert too much of our precious freeway funds to the Gold Line. The feds need to step up with the money. What I see is that Ray Wolfe is playing deep chess. He is a smart guy. We are fortunate to have him.”
Like many others, Rigsby is not enthusiastic about the toll lanes on the I-10 or elsewhere in the county. He expressed the view that tolls would be tantamount to quadruple taxation—general taxes, fuel taxes, Measure I, and tolling. He did not, however, lay the responsibility for their advent at Wolfe’s feet. He said it remained possible for the added lanes to serve as a means of improving the flow on the freeway by calibrating the toll charge to an amount that would induce a large enough segment of commuters on the freeway to use them to alleviate back-ups of the general use lanes. “When correctly priced, responding to varying demand for use of the toll lanes, they should theoretically accommodate 900 cars per lane per hour and maintain free flow at the speed limit, whereas general purpose lanes during rush hour degenerate to a crawl, allowing fewer than 200 cars per lane per hour. So if they are managed correctly, two new toll lanes would carry about 1,400 more cars per hour than two new general purpose lanes.”
Deborah Barmack, who was Wolfe’s predecessor at SANBAG, did not hand control of the agency over to Wolfe directly, as her second-in-command, Ty Shuiling, had served as the interim SANBAG director during the nearly nine months after her departure in August 2011 and the time Wolfe assumed the post he yet holds. She remains knowledgeable about the issues and challenges he faces, though she said, “I am no longer there, having been retired for more than ten years. So, I cannot speak in the capacity of official authority.”
She offered a positive assessment of her successor.
“My observation is Dr. Wolfe has done an excellent job bringing services and express lanes to the freeways. He has overseen numerous important and well-engineered projects to completion with others ongoing. He has done exceedingly well in bringing new technology into the rail service we have in this county.”
Barmack’s latter reference was to the Redlands Passenger Rail Project, a nine-mile rail extension from Downtown San Bernardino to Downtown Redlands, also known as the Arrow Passenger Rail Service. The trains on the route are to be drawn by diesel electric low-floor Flirt multiple units manufactured by the Swiss-owned Stadler Company at its Salt Lake City plant, otherwise known as diesel multiple units. The diesel multiple units are powered by an on-board low-emission, clean diesel engine and are smaller, quieter, more efficient, and less expensive to operate than standard locomotive haul coaches. The Arrow Passenger Rail Service is to work interoperably on the same track as Metrolink and freight train services which allows for all three train modalities to use the same track in the existing corridor. In addition to local commuter service, a Metrolink locomotive-hauled coach train will also provide round trip express service from Redlands-to-Los Angeles each morning with a return trip from Los Angeles-to-Redlands each evening. The Arrow Passenger Rail Service is to feature five stations on the corridor between the San Bernardino Transit Center and the University of Redlands. The diesel multiple units have already been delivered and the Redlands Passenger Rail System is to begin operation later this year. In addition to the diesel multiple units, Stadler is contracted to deliver to SBCTA a hydrogen-powered train by 2024 and SBCTA has an option to order four more hydrogen-powered vehicles in the future.
“These are the first diesel multiple units to be used in the United States,” Barmack said. “SBCTA is now operating the first rail line to use what is the cleanest technology available. Dr. Wolfe is a supporter of smart and efficient rail transportation.”
Just as she and the SANBAG executive directors before her had to wrestle with coordinating a large and oftentimes unwieldy organization, Wolfe must spend a good amount of time getting everyone on the same page, she said. But those involved are by their nature as elected officials goal oriented, she said, making a concerted effort possible and putting meaningful progress toward things that are worthwhile within reach.
“The SBCTA board is large,” she said. “It is diverse. But I think in normal situations, they understand they are there to make regional decisions, which is different from when they are acting in the capacity of a city council or as county supervisors. It is difficult to get or gain consensus and keep momentum going when you are working on or involved with large programs and services to different jurisdictions. I think it is an advantage that every city representative and member of the board of supervisors has an opportunity to vote on projects. I think that every member of that board is there to represent their city or jurisdiction, but hopefully they work in a manner that is intended to develop reasonably efficient policies. Building a consensus is a challenge.”
Los Angeles County officials have achieved something beneficial with the Gold Line, Barmack said.
“The Gold Line project is something that has been developed in Los Angeles County and has been moving forward for some time,” she said. “The Gold Line Authority has to date delivered effectively and efficiently a project that benefited Los Angeles County’s regional plan.”
Whether the Gold Line’s success to the west can be reproduced in San Bernardino County is another question, she said.
“For over a decade the plan has been to bring the last segment of that project to Montclair,” Barmack said. “I know that SBCTA, which was called SANBAG when I was there, was committed to adhering to that plan. At present, the funding for that portion is inadequate and to date they haven’t identified the funding. I think Dr. Wolfe’s strategy at this point is to move forward in exploring transit options that will make it technologically and financially feasible to proceed. I believe SBCTA is doing that at this time. They have a contract underway to evaluate all forms of transit operations. During my tenure the proposed line to be constructed by the Gold Line Authority was in the regional plans to connect all the way to Montclair. At that point, it was to connect with other rail projects on the existing rail line in San Bernardino County. During my tenure, the Gold Line project ended at Montclair. In recent years there has been a lot of talk of it expanding to Ontario. From my knowledge it is operating in an efficient manner. I do not have any criticism of the Gold Line.”
The key to the success of public transportation is in the hands of the public, Barmack said.
“Frequency of service on a rail line is much like consistency on a transit bus, which is based on ridership,” she said. “If you have riders who fill your buses and pay for tickets and have density, you have the ability to provide more frequent service. I cannot speak to efficiency and rider frequency on the Gold Line at present. I can tell you about Metrolink. Prior to the COVID pandemic, the San Bernardino line had the highest ridership in the Metrolink system, so it has a history of very good performance. Ridership into Los Angeles on Metrolink dropped significantly after the mandated closures.”
The expense of constructing the Gold Line into San Bernardino County, which requires two tracks, represents a major challenge to its viability, Barmack said.
“The financial feasibility of constructing a new line is going to be a significant factor,” she said.
San Bernardino officials should observe, listen to and learn from Los Angeles County and the officials running that jurisdiction’s transportation agencies and monitor their progress, but should not be dictated to by them, Barmack said.
“One of the biggest challenges of extending the Gold Line into San Bernardino County is determining if it will meet the needs of the residents who live here and must commute to get to work,” she said. “That determination lies with the SBCTA board. That is whose job it is to make that determination, not those in outlying communities.”
There is no question that Dr. Raymond Wolfe is uncommonly accomplished and capable. Like many competent people entrusted with responsibility, he does not suffer meddlers and dilettantes gladly. When he speaks, even softly, it comes across as a certain psychological roar. He realizes he has critics, most of whom he tends to ignore or isolate. Where inquiries arise with regard to the San Bernardino County Transit Authority that carry with them the potential for stirring up trouble or raising further questions, they often go unanswered.
A case in point is the SBCTA budget in the years the authority has been overseen by Wolfe.
In 2012-13 SBCTA expended $734,349,843 against $589,174,180 in revenue.
In 2013-14 SBCTA expended $733,069,185 against $631,157,582 in revenue.
In 2014-15 SBCTA expended $617,734,235 against $443,079,738 in revenue
In 2015-16 SBCTA expended $504,344,651 against $420,603,094 in revenue.
In 2016-17 SBCTA expended $485,606,037 against $380.4 million in revenue.
In 2017-18 SBCTA expended $493,553,348 as a transportation agency and $3,345,582 as the county’s council of governments for a total outlay of $496,898,93 against revenue of $383.8 million.
In 2018-19 SBCTA expended $732,118,122 as a transportation agency and $977,472 as the county’s council of governments for a total outlay of $733,095,594 against revenue of $556.1 million.
In 2019-2020 SBCTA expended $925,365,267 as a transportation agency and $1,834,285 as the county’s council of governments for a total outlay of $927,199,552 against revenue of $749.9 million plus $45 million in short term borrowing.
In 2020-2021 SBCTA expended $959,567,686 against $711.8 million in revenue and $22 million in short term borrowing.
In yet ongoing 2021/2022 SBCTA is on a trajectory to spend $1,018.6 million – i.e., $1.0186 billion – against $722.7 million in revenue plus $15 million in interfund borrowing.
Wolfe for the last decade has consistently maintained he has worked within the framework of a balanced budget each year. When well-meaning and sincere inquiries, from journalists and others, have been made on that point of discrepancy and how the variances between estimated revenues and appropriations could be reconciled using transferences, debt proceeds and balance carryovers from proceeding years given the decade-long unbroken string of deficit spending, Wolfe prevented SBCTA staff from explaining or resolving that incongruity.
SBCTA’s staff, in particular its inner circle, is densely packed with Wolfe’s fierce loyalists, most of whose advancing careers and paychecks are linked to his continuing success. This has served Wolfe well, but created on occasion political enemies, who have grown into a fissure in the foundation of the SBCTA edifice. When the upheaval over the toll lanes comes, that fissure may well expand along lines both predictable and unpredictable.
Wolfe, an engineer by nature, temperament, training and choice, functions best in an atmosphere of stability and order. If the organization he heads drifts towards recrimination, anarchy and chaos to become subject to dissent from within and without, if the center does not hold, he very well may be swept away in the ensuing shuffle.
Leon said the imbalance between the county’s road and rail infrastructure has created a physical and institutional impasse that is likely to trigger a reckoning at SBCTA.
“Our efforts are not going toward promoting public transportation,” Leon said. “Our efforts continue to make it easy for the average person to get into and out of his or her car. We have to figure out how to provide alternatives.”
San Bernardino County, the Inland Empire and the whole of Southern California is living under the curse of Alfred P. Sloan, Leon said.
“If you think of it in terms of efficiency and energy use, look at the metal and weight around you when you are in your car,” he said. “When you look at light rail, which has the advantage of being something that is used and does not just go from here to there empty, one of those coaches holds 40 people or more.”
The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority is the one entity with the power and in the position to make what needs to be the evolutionary shift back to a transportation system that was stolen by Alfred P. Sloan and his cohorts from the region’s past and current residents, Leon said.
“There is a whole population of people who need mass transportation and its affordability,” Leon said.
It’s incumbent upon Wolfe to be bold enough to prepare the way for shifting the commuting modality used by upwards of 100,000 San Bernardino County residents from personal vehicles to public transportation through the incentive of convenience and by being energetic and aggressive enough to tap into governmental subsidization of passenger rail systems, the mayor said.
“If SBCTA has a shelf-ready program, a project ready to go, if we apply for the money and the feds or the state come through with it, then we can apply it immediately or very rapidly toward whatever project – track construction or grade separations, repairs or upgrades – and then move onto the next phase of the project,” Leon said. “We can’t take the attitude that we’ll explore the idea after we get the money. That’s not the way it works. We have to be ready, with a plan in hand, because when the feds come through and we aren’t ready to act, they will pass right over us and give the funding to someone who is ready. Ray has to be proactive to go out and get what is available or is coming to be available.”
Wolfe is hamstrung, Leon said, by being at the beck and call of the SBCTA board, which Leon characterized as “too many parochial interests, each with their own narrow agenda. I don’t want to use the term ‘small-minded,’ but too few of them are focused on the opportunity that’s here for us to bring into existence a sweeping regional transportation solution.
“They are not interested, and they will try to find excuses not to act,” Leon continued. “What they have is not an excuse. An excuse means you have a sound reason to have done something or to not do something. There is not a sound reason not to extend the Gold Line to Ontario Airport and there is not a sound reason not to extend the Gold Line to Ontario Airport at the earliest date possible. The people who are in control – the majority of those who are on the SBCTA board – don’t want to hear it from us. We have to open their eyes. We have to help them see the reality. There is a terminal in my city, at Ontario Airport, with a massive amount of parking and the available land to build more structures. You can live in Redlands or San Bernardino and drive to Ontario and take the train to Los Angeles and be there in 40 or 45 minutes without having to sit on the freeway for two-and-a-half hours. Will that ease the congestion on the 10 Freeway? I think so. We need to stop feeding the monster by building lanes that people will have to pay to use that they’ve already paid for as taxpayers. People should not be throwing tax money toward building freeway lanes they can never afford to use themselves.”
Government, in this case SBCTA, should not be tailoring its policy to cater to a minority, but the vast majority of those it serves, Leon said.
“You keep hearing people saying that electric cars are the answer,” Leon said. “People are saying that the toll lanes are the solution. Well, they’re not, not for the average Joe. That is elitism at its finest, or its worst. How many people can afford electric cars? Who can afford, every day, day in and day out, to pay an 85-cents-a-mile-toll to get to work? It’s the elitists out there who want Lexus lanes. They don’t consider anything beyond their own personal spot in the sunshine. You have to consider the people who cannot afford these things, who still must travel west every morning and east to get back home at the end of the day.
“I don’t have the results of a survey, but I would bet you that most of the people in Redlands are working someplace west of their city,” Leon went on. “If you look at the rail commuting opportunities the people on the east side of county have, they are not that impressive. The train scheduling is inferior. Parking is insufficient. People would love to come to Ontario Airport and get on the Gold Line. They would if it was there.”
“Ray Wolfe is making how much?” he mused. “More than half of a million dollars a year? That’s how much we’re paying him. He’ll be worth twice that if he succeeds in getting the Gold Line to Ontario Airport before he retires.”
By Mark Gutglueck